Joseph Christopher Rocha, the gay Navy vet whose horror story of abuse at the hands of comrades in the Middle East we’ve been following, got another dose of bad news: The same guy who helped perpetrate the abuse has been rewarded with promotions.
From being forced to simulate oral sex to being thrown into a dog kennel, Rocha endured two years of harassment and assaults from fellow sailors — and his chief master-at-arms, Michael Toussaint, who Rocha says targeted him about six weeks into deployment, all because Rocha had no interest in screwing around with the female prostitutes many of the straight sailors were happy to oblige.
Eventually, Rocha, who was part of the Navy’s crew that worked with bomb-sniffing dogs in Bahrain, resigned his post (by coming out!) to escape, and the Navy’s brief investigation into his harassment allegations ended without any charges being filed.
Now, through a Freedom of Information Act, YouthRadio.org retrieved some of the Navy’s own paperwork into the lax investigation, revealing the horror Rocha claims he endured. Sadly, YouthRadio’s own detective work is leaps and bounds ahead of the Navy’s own commitment to finding out the truth. And holding the perpetrators accountable.
The FOIA documents have been redacted, so names are blocked out, but the actions listed include: throwing hard balls at the groin, spraying down uniformed personnel with multiple hoses, and a dog attacking a sex worker on base to the point of hospitalization.
Youth Radio’s investigation includes interviewing four members of the Bahrain Working Dogs Division who served between 2004 and 2006. All say the tone was set by Chief Toussaint. Some sailors participated in the culture of hazing as victims, others as perpetrators, or in some cases both. They say the hazing continued because of a series of threats that were also integral to the culture of the unit, which not only tolerated abuse, but also invited it. To prevent them from speaking out, sailors Youth Radio interviewed say Toussaint would threaten to revoke their handlers’ licenses–taking away their dogs and their specialty in the Navy.
And what kind of torment was he forced to endure?
[T]he hog-tying episode was not the first or only case of harassment and abuse during Rocha’s deployment. In another incident cited in the documents, Rocha was forced to appear in a twisted “training video.” A member of the Working Dogs Division, Petty Officer Shaun Hogan, recalls the scene.
“Petty Officer Rocha and another junior sailor…were instructed to go into a classroom by Chief Michael Toussaint, who orchestrated the entire training. And Chief Toussaint asked them to simulate homosexual sex on a couch,” Hogan says.
Next in the simulation, Hogan says a handler and his dog barged onto the scene, and that’s when “one person…would sit up, kind of wipe off their mouth, the other would get up, and they would be fixing their fly.”
Rocha says Toussaint bullied him, “telling me I needed to be more believable, act more queer, have a higher pitched voice, make the sounds and gestures more realistic…I didn’t think I had a choice…It made me feel that I wasn’t a human being, that I was an animal, rather.”
Rocha says at the time, he had no gay friends, no male lovers, and wasn’t even fully out to himself about his sexuality. “The fact that I was starting to figure out that I was a homosexual, it was the most degrading thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.” Still, eight thousand miles away from home, he was afraid to report the constant hazing. And Rocha was not the only one.
Throughout learning of Rocha’s story, one thing that never escaped our minds was: Yes, but weren’t there witnesses to all of this who didn’t participate? Yes, of course, but they were too afraid to speak up.
Shaun Hogan (at right) says he is haunted by personal guilt.
“I was duty bound to protect those under my command; Petty Officer Rocha [and] several others. I have a lot of regret for not having spoken up at the time and intervening… and the reason I didn’t was because I felt threatened myself. Chief Toussaint had shown he will throw people out of the kennel. The last thing he did when he left was threaten me, that if he hears anything that doesn’t agree with him, he knows people, and he’ll seek to have my certification to handle dogs removed.”
We can only imagine what type of fear and anguish our men and women in uniform face every day in the Middle East. The last thing we need is their own commanders terrorizing them.
Now given the Navy’s stonewalling, what do you think are the chances Pentagon higher-ups will ever address the matter?